Alfred Place Baptist Church

Finding a Wife for Isaac

Genesis 24:1-4 “Abraham was now old and well advanced in years, and the LORD had blessed him in every way. He said to the chief servant in his household, the one in charge of all that he had, ‘Put your hand under my thigh. I want you to swear by the LORD, the God of heaven and the God of earth, that you will not get a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I am living, but will go to my country and my own relatives and get a wife for my son Isaac.’”

 

This is the longest chapter in the book of Genesis and it occurs right at the heart of the book. It begins by reminding its readers of the great age of Abraham; he was “old and well advanced in years” (v.1); in fact he was about 140, but he was not about to retire from the scene. He was still full of faith and plans for the bringing in of God’s kingdom. In fact he was soon to marry again and raise a family full of boys. The reason for his long and extraordinary life is given us in the second clause in the opening verse, that the Lord had blessed him in every way. Every believer is blessed with every spiritual blessing in the heavenlies in Christ Jesus, but Abraham to a marked degree. There was not an area of his life where he was not a blessed man. Abraham was trusting God with all his heart. He was not leaning to his own understanding. He was unafraid of death. He had abounding hope concerning the covenant promises God had made to him.

 

At Abraham’s great age he had one more concern to be resolved. His son Isaac was unmarried and Abraham knew that the most important event in all the world was the continuity of the line of promise. He also knew that it was only by the blessing of God this could happen. Abraham savoured the promises that God had made; it was through Isaac his son that his descendants would multiply, the land would be filled by Abraham’s line, the promised Messiah would be one of those to be born to him, and all the nations of the world would be blessed. All this has to happen. It is Yea and Amen because God had made a covenant promise in the highest of terms, even in a self-maledictory oath, coming to Abraham and moving in the form of a consuming fire and shining light between the avenues of sacrificial animals, confirming that Abraham would have many descendants, covenanting, as it were, “Let Me take the curse if this does not happen!” However, that does not mean Abraham does not think and pray about this. He does not sit back and wait for a wife for Isaac to be lowered from the skies supported by the angels. He will not be a carnal match-maker, but he will exercise his faith and dependence on God in searching for a wife for his boy. This chapter is a wonderful example of the providence of God in the little details that happened. It is also a chapter than emphasizes the responsibility and decisions that godly men and women take. I want us simply to look at two things:

 
  1. ABRAHAM SENT FOR HIS SERVANT.
 

You notice how the rank of the man Abraham summons is underlined, “the chief servant of his household, the one in charge of all that he had” (v.2). You see the attention to every detail of this important mission given by Abraham. There is no trace of fatalism, of que cera cera here. His advancing years means an even deeper seriousness will characterize his planning. You see this in three details:

 

i] Abraham made him swear an oath: “Put your hand under my thigh. I want you to swear by the LORD, the God of heaven and the God of earth” (vv.2&3). This was a strange ritual. What in the world was going on there?  Apparently, this particular action was designed to remind the servant of a couple of things, such as the vital solemnity of the mission he was taking. I suppose that the form this oath took emphasized its connection with the promise of the covenant sign of circumcision.  In this peculiar form of making an oath with his hand under Abraham’s thigh he and his master were reinforcing their commitment to God’s covenant with Abraham and his seed. It’s interesting to note that at the end of the book of Genesis (in Genesis 47, verse 29) the dying charge that Jacob makes to his son Joseph and the promise he requires of him is enacted in just this same way. “Joseph, put your hand under my thigh and swear by Jehovah.”

 

ii] Abraham made a particular demand (in verses 3 and 4) that the servant ensures that Isaac does not marry into the daughters of Canaan. It may be connected with Abraham’s knowledge that God is going to bring destruction on the Canaanites. The Lord had promised (in Genesis 15) that there would be a day when the sins of the Canaanites would be so filled up as to open the sluice gates of God’s judgment and destruction.  Abraham had heard from the lips of the Lord himself that God was going to bring such a curse on the Canaanites. So Abraham did not want to shunt someone like Isaac who was living on the narrow line of promise onto that broad line which was heading for destruction.  Certainly Abraham’s action here foreshadows both Old and New Testament commands that believers marry ‘only in the Lord.’ Then there is one more point of interest in the exchange between servant and master.

 

iii] Abraham’s response to the feelings of uncertainty that his request had created in the servant (in verse 5) before he took the oath. He’d never been asked by his beloved master Abraham to promise to do something which seemed much beyond his capacity to fulfil. This servant was pensive, asking, “Master,
can I bring a bride back for Isaac? Surely I cannot guarantee that a woman will want to come back from Mesopotamia to Canaan to live with a man she’s never met?” The servant couldn’t abduct her, and so he raises the question, “Master, what if she doesn’t want to come? What if I go all that way and then there is no one willing to come back and marry your son? What shall I do then? Maybe I go to Ur of the Chaldees and find a wife for Isaac there?” When Abraham responded he made two non-negotiables clear to the concerned servant, that God was most certainly going to provide a wife for his son Isaac, because Jehovah had promised this by oath. Then, whatever might happen on this journey into uncharted territory, the servant dare not marry Isaac to a Canaanite or encourage his son to return to the land of Mesopotamia. Should no woman return with him then this anonymous chief servant would released from his oath (v.8). But we know that Abraham has heard that a branch of his family was living 500 miles away in Nahor, and that his nephew had a daughter named Rebekah. He does not divulge this name to the servant but he points him in this direction. So the servant is to go alone, without Isaac, to find a bride for his son.

 

In Abraham’s response to the servant’s question (in verses 6, 7 and 8) we see a couple of things. Abraham’s beautiful trust in God’s providence. Abraham is totally convinced that God is going to provide not only some wife, but the right wife for Isaac. He’s so convinced of that, that he refuses to compromise. Abraham refuses to lower his standards; Isaac is not to be married off to a Canaanite. He refuses to think of Isaac going back to the land of Mesopotamia. He might settle down in that place, and therefore never, ever take possession of the land of promise which God has made to Abraham. Couldn’t Abraham on many occasions have made a similar exodus from the promised land during the 60 years he had lived there, and returned to Ur? He could have packed it all in at tough times and gone back to the place in which he’d lived for the first seventy years of his life. We have seen it in others in our own experience, professing Christians taking off and leaving the narrow path. When, for example, sickness and death come into the marriages of some Chrisitans, they stop going to church, they even leave their spouses. But Abraham believed in God’s covenant, and though he wandered very near the borders of the promised land, and even tried a week or two in Egypt during a famine he quickly came back.

 

We also hear these generous words of Abraham to the servant that if the woman refuses to return with him, “you will be released from this oath of mine” (v.8). Abraham entertains the possibility that he might be mistaken, and that this venture is not God’s way of getting a wife for Isaac. He says to his servant, “Don’t worry about it. If she won’t return with you then just come back on your own and we’ll decide what to do next.”

 

That’s an important principle, isn’t it? Guidance is not easy; it is not straightforward for mature holy men. They have accepted an invitation to become a pastor, or a professor, or to lead a Christian organization and they have some tentative convictions that this is the will of God for them. Yet things don’t work out the way they were thinking and hoping. What happens then? What do you do when it doesn’t pan out as you thought it would? One thing you discovered was more of the implications of your vocation. You had taken that job, but it didn’t work out. You had made that investment, and it resulted in loss. You entered the relationship, but the other person was unhappy and ended it. You had started college and that particular course, but it didn’t work out. You didn’t realize what was involved. You’d bought a business, but a recession came along. What do you do then? One reaction is to think, “I must have been wrong; this couldn’t have been the will of God.” I don’t think that’s the most helpful way of considering such events.

 

Problems and troubles are not the sign that you are out of God’s will. It might well mean that all you’ve done is exactly what God wanted you to do, that in fact it would have been sinful to respond at that stage in any other way. God sent those later disappointments not as a judgment but as a sign that whereas you’d done right now there is another way you must go. When Paul was stoned and dragged out of a city half dead was he out of God’s will to go there? No, though it was a time of such suffering. No one was ever a better Christian than Paul and yet he ended up in prison. God’s will sometimes means the experience of heartache and pain.

 

When you’ve made a choice, and the choice has brought one difficulty after another into your life, then don’t respond, “Ah, it was not God’s will for me to go to college, or to adopt a child from overseas, or try to open that business, or start that friendship.” The fact that your plans haven’t worked out exactly as you anticipated doesn’t mean that your earlier decisions were wrong. Generally it means that there are other factors at work unknown to us and we may never know why God allowed us to go down what we now consider to be a blind alley.

 

Abraham gives these instructions to his servant: “Look, I know that it’s God’s will for my son to have a wife, so I want you to go and find her. I believe that my sending you to get her is God’s will, but if you come back without a wife for Isaac, don’t fret. We will learn from what happened and that will help us next time. We’ll wait on God and think of another option. If you fail in this mission, that doesn’t mean that going forth in faith in the Lord was wrong, or my decision to seek a wife for Isaac through your journey was wrong.” Let’s all learn to handle some of our frustrations in that way. We always go on in faith our own great weakness feeling. Maybe we learn more from blind alleys and broken dreams and disappointments than we learn from the things that have worked out smoothly.

 

Then Abraham also encourages his servant by assuring him that the God of the covenant is also the God of providence. This servant mustn’t think that God simply sketched out great promises in his word and then let his people get on with life by their own wits and strength. Abraham assures the servant that the Lord who “promised me on oath saying, ‘To your offspring I will give this land’ – he will send his angel before you so that you can get a wife for my son from there” (v.7). You are going to get help each step of the way.

 

We have no hint that Abraham had ever been tempted to establish a close relationship with one of the local families in Mamre or Beersheba so that he could marry off Isaac to one of their daughters. He had learned his lesson from the debacle of the birth of Ishmael. If Isaac should marry a girl from a local family, then Abraham and he would no longer be regarded as ‘aliens’ in the land of Canaan. Such a marriage would have involved a ‘Canaanizing’ of the seed of promise. Abraham couldn’t dream of doing such a thing. He trusted in God’s providence. Here is the faith of Abraham. We see him as the father of all the faithful. He believes that the Lord will provide, and up to the very end of his life he is still acting by faith, instructing, exhorting, preaching to his servants, resting in the Lord to fulfill his promises to him. What an example he is to us of
going on and trusting in divine providence. 

 

2. ABRAHAM’S SERVANT SETS OUT ON HIS QUEST.

 

Then the narrative with such sublime skill describes for us the servant’s journey. We now see this man’s faith in God. What an influence Abraham has had over his household. If he is going to be successful in this incredible mission, finding the right people and persuading the right girl to come back with him, then it will only be by the help of God. The man has no map; we are not told of a wagon-master or guide leading him across the wilderness. He himself is the leader; the final decisions each day are his, and he has to cast himself on God’s guidance hour by hour. He rests in God’s providence; he trusts his heavenly Father; he believes God’s promises exactly as we do – “I will never leave you nor forsake you; I will supply all your need; I will work all things together for your good; cast your burden on the Lord and he will sustain you,” and so on. The servant had to do that. That was how he showed his faith, but that faith required daily decisions and actions. So in this passage, in all the acts and attitudes of the servant we see a beautiful combination of prayerful trust in God, and canny decisions. We meet humble reliance upon the Lord, and good common sense. It is quite brilliant. He does not put a foot wrong.

 

You notice that camels are mentioned here. That is just the second time in the Bible, and the earlier reference was also to do with the Abraham narrative. The servant took ten of Abraham’s camels with him to the land of Mesopotamia suggesting that there were many that he left behind. That is quite significant because camels in those days were a sign of wealth and station. We know that camels were not used on a widespread basis until about 800 years after the time of Abraham. The only people who could have afforded domesticated camels at the time of patriarchs were the super rich. So when this servant would show up at some oasis with ten camels, then people would know that this entourage came from a man of means. “That man is in charge of ten camels; I wonder how many camels must his master have?” That would be the gossip. So the beasts of burden were a sign of wealth and station. 

 

Eventually, after a month or so we judge, the man had made it on his 400 mile journey across the wilderness. He had arrived exactly where he should have, at Nahor. It was evening and he showed his authority over man and beast by not immediately watering the animals but making these thirsty animals kneel down near the well outside the town. He had total mastery over the camels and they waited restlessly smelling the water. The sun was setting and it grew cooler so that the local women could begin to perform their household chores going out of doors, getting water for the cooking for the evening meal. But the man didn’t stand and stare at the women as they appeared. No, he prayed a long and urgent prayer to God. He spread out his strategy before Lord. “This is my scheme Lord. Give me success in it. See me here. I stand modestly and wait for a girl to come, one who takes the initiative. What I want is that she offer to help me.” He’d been travelling for weeks and this was not the first time he had prayed. He was a man of prayer, and he had known only in the most general of ways where he was going. He arrived at this little town; he speaks to God and he says, “Show me the right woman for my master’s son, Isaac.” Let’s note several things:

 

i] Consider the servant’s prayer. What are its distinctive features? He pleads the covenant of God with his master, Abraham. Of course this doesn’t mean that the servant does not know Abraham’s Lord as his very own God. It simply means that the servant recognized the uniqueness of God’s relationship with his master Abraham. So he pleads the covenant promises of God to Abraham as he prays. We today pray the covenant in its final form, the new covenant in the Lord Jesus Christ, and we ask for all the blessings that come from the accomplishments of Christ to come to us day by day.

 

Then the man also prays, “O Lord, the God of my master, Abraham, please grant me success today.”  He is not talking about success in man management terms, or in one-up-manship, but success in the high and holy calling that has been given to him, success on the mission he has taken for his master. Aren’t we all on a mission? Aren’t we longing for success in such things as these, to see him more clearly, to love him more dearly and follow him more nearly day by day? Lord, please grant us such success.

 

ii] Consider the sign he considers in the presence of God. “May it be that when I say to a girl, ‘Please let down your jar that I may have a drink,’ and she says, ‘Drink, and I’ll water your camels too’ – let her be the one you have chosen for your servant Isaac’” (v.14). Now you understand that that is not what Christians can refer to as a ‘fleece,’ some arbitrarily chosen sign to confirm a chosen course of action, for example if there were no rain the next morning, or if a thrush is standing on a branch of a tree, or your wife said certain things unprompted at breakfast, that that would lead you to act in a certain way. No, that is not at all how we are to interpret this sign of the girl watering the camels. Those are not helpful ways of knowing divine guidance. R.B. Kuiper tells of a farmboy who decided to stop farming for the day and go off and preach. He had seen what he claimed to be a cloud formation spelling out two letters, ‘P’ and ‘C.’ “They mean ‘Preach Christ,” he told his employer. “No,” they mean “Plant Corn,” he replied curtly, “Get back on the tractor.”

 

Here in Genesis 24 was a morally good and sensible sign asked for by the servant. It was specific; it wasn’t touchy feely. It was evident, I mean it was public; it was easy to determine whether or not it had happened. This was a good work. It was also appropriate and necessary; the camels were desperately in need of water. It was an excellent test to discover the kind of wife she would make for Isaac, and a daughter-in-law to Abraham. She was going to become the mother of a great nation, and so needed to be kind, courteous, hospitable, generous, gracious, thoughtful, industrious, willing to bear her share of the load. This was not some frivolous sign like a fancy cloud formation. It was an ethical sign very appropriate for the needs of the moment.

 

iii] Consider the woman he saw. Rebekah arrived. She was pure – a virgin whom no man had known. But what impressed him particularly was that she reminded him of his master, Abraham. He remembered the times when Abraham would be sitting at his tent door in the breeze during the heat of the day and he would spot some travellers approaching. He had often noticed how his master would hurry to greet them. He would hasten to persuade them to stay so that he could give them food and drink. He learned that Abraham’s heart was not set on possessions but full of love for his neighbour. This was a sign of the faith that God had given to Abraham. This woman Rebekah who greeted him and called him ‘Lord’ was just the same. She was a whirlwind of hospitality. She ‘quickly’ put the pitcher down to give him a drink. She ‘quickly’ emptied the remainder into a trough for his camels. She
hurried to get more water for the camels. She was like Abraham not loving the goods of this world but was full of her neighbours’ needs. She counted the comforts of a stranger more important than her own welfare. She too behaved as a woman of faith.

 

Wasn’t this a super-abundant answer to the sign he asked the Lord to perform? Her qualities displayed the very qualities that God himself would prize in a wife for Isaac, a woman who was kind and thoughtful, hospitable, humble, hardworking. The man requested an initiative from her that was not ordinary hospitality.  This was a ‘70 times 7’ response. This was a ‘going the second mile’ response. This was a ‘turning of the other cheek’ response. This was a ‘loving your neighbour as yourself’ response. There is scarcely even in the New Testament a disiciple’s gesture of sacrificial, loving self-denial you can compare to Rebekah’s here. This is like kneeling down and washing the feet of twelve disciples. The man says, “Lord, when I ask this woman for a drink, cause her to go a great step further and offer to water my camels.” What an enormous task! Dr. Ligon Duncan observes, “The jars that held the water with which she would have been drawing water would probably have held three gallons. Thirsty camels after a month in the wilderness are known to drink as many as twenty-five gallons. There were ten thirsty camels. We’re talking about 250 gallons of water.  The servant is asking for a woman who isn’t merely going to give him a drink from her jar, but who is going to fetch 250 gallons for his camels. This is an out of the ordinary request.” 

 

So, almost on cue, Rebekah comes onto the scene, and in verse 17 we are told on seeing her the servant half ran in his eagerness to meet her. I don’t know whether the hurry was because she was gorgeous, square-shouldered, big hips, strong, intelligent and so she was very beautiful (v.16) – she was certainly no skinny waif. Did he hurry to meet her because he was very anxious to get this bride for his master’s son? Whatever reason, he lengthened his stride and went up to this striking Rebekah and he asked her whether, please, he could have a drink of water. What would she say?

 

This section describes in superb detail the tense, anxious waiting of this servant to see if his prayers were going to be answered.  Sure enough, it was all a very encouraging response; she addressed him with great respect as ‘Lord’ and was delighted to offer him a drink from her jar. Then she further offered to water his camels. Joy bells were ringing! She emptied the jar and proceeded to begin to fill and fill and fill her jar of water as she walked back and fore from the well to the camels watering all ten of them. We are not told that the servant helped at all. He put her to the test; he stood there in silence watching her toil. Had the Lord made his journey successful or not? (v.21). Would she finish what she had begun? Was she a sticker? She was. Yes, she was a gift from an angel. God did “send his angel so that you can get a wife for my son” (v.7). When she completed her arduous and kindly work, he went to her in thanks and maybe it was out of his pocket that he took gold bracelets and rings. We’re told that those bracelets and rings were worth more than ten and a half shekels. That would have been the equivalent of a common man’s wages for a year. So here’s the picture. Do you see how this woman had gone back and fore forty times from the well to the camels carry heavy water pots, and when she was done the servant approached her and took out ten thousand pounds’ worth of jewellery and held them in his hands. That would have made an impression, to say the least. Was this for her? It showed her that the owner of these camels was a man of considerable means and a generous man. That would have been an important factor, no doubt, in her willingness to leave Mesopotamia and set out on a month’s journey to a land where she’d never been in order to marry a man whom she’d never seen. 

 

iv] Consider the family she came from. Then came the clincher as the servant learned who this woman was who has just watered the camels. She turned out to be part of Abraham’s brother’s family.  She was his great niece, a granddaughter of Abraham’s brother, Nahor, by Milcah.  What is the servant’s reaction? He is utterly overwhelmed. With the woman watching he instantly falls on his face and he worships God. Do you see the sort of success he’d prayed for? Success for the natural man inflates his ego, but it humbles the man of God. First as he prayed he thanked God. Then he thought of his master, and then he acknowledged that all of his success was due to the Lord guiding him. Rebekah listened to this devout man who had just given her ten thousand pounds worth of jewellery. Can you imagine Rebekah’s response to his prayer?  Here she is, having just met this man, and she tells him simply who she is. She is too modest to tell him her own name. She tells him the names of her parents, and how does he respond?  He falls on his face and worships God. In the midst of the prayer she hears him say, “Oh, I thank you, I praise you, O Jehovah, the God of my master, Abraham.” But she had grown up hearing the name of Abraham in her household.  He was that strange distant relation who had many, many years before, because he believed that God had called him, gone far away to some distant land and little had been heard of him ever since. Now this stranger that she’d met and helped at the well, who had shown her such generosity, is praying to the Lord, the God of Abraham. What an impact all that made upon her! This God who had called Abraham from this family so long ago had now sent his servant back to make contact with his family again, and she found herself deeply involved.

 

So here we are shown what grace has done in this servant’s heart and what the same God’s grace can do in your heart too. How wonderfully he handles the success God has given him. Don’t you deplore the macho culture of male success, for example, how soccer players behave after they have scored a goal? Isn’t it sickening? Aren’t you repulsed? They are paid an obscene salary for playing a game, and then when they score a goal they act as if they have delivered the planet from aliens. You see it in a pub darts match, or even when a man finds a parking place in a car park. He slips the car into the one empty place without scratching the cars on either side and he cries, “Yes!!! Am I good, or what?” He is doing something very basic, that really is not to his credit at all, and he responds by praising himself. How embarrassing and sick is the male ego. It is the barometer of a society in rebellion against God. Then you compare it to the spirituality of this servant. He journeys 450 miles across a wilderness. He travels for a month. He gets to the right place. He meets the right girl, and then his response is to bow low and praise God for it all; “Praise be to the LORD, the God of my master Abraham, who has not abandoned his kindness and faithfulness to my master. As for me, the LORD has led me on the journey to the house of my master’s relatives.” This is the result of divine grace in a man’s heart. He’s not strutting his stuff and patting himself on the back. There is no taking credit for what God alone could do – as if he were the one who’d accomplished all this. As canny as
this man was, as wise, as shrewd as he was, he gives all the praise to God.  God’s providence is sweet. It’s worth trusting in; it’s worth resting in this providence as we continue to obey the principles of the word and believe its promises. That’s just what this servant did. What an example he is to us all.

 

In this prayer, his first thought was for the Lord, and then he thought of himself; “As for me [All I can say about myself is this] The Lord has led me on the journey.” He wouldn’t be where he was without the Lord, and we all nod our heads gravely to that and whisper our Amens. There is the famous translation of this prayer in the Authorized Version; it is beloved by all of us older folk; “I, being in the way, the Lord led me.” He is saying that he had been 400 to 500 miles away with his master, while Rebekah had been here in Nahor. Then he did the will of God. “I didn’t do it my way. I did it the way.” He set out in obedience to a command that came from Abraham, God’s covenant friend. He didn’t reject out of hand the strange and costly request, and decide to stay to care for the camels in Mamre. If he were in Mamre he wouldn’t have been in the way. He’d have been in his way, but the servant did God’s will and so he was in the way and was led specifically and directly to the person who would meet his master’s need and be a proper bride for Isaac.

 

It is a great privilege enjoyed by most Christians, to know that they are being led by the Spirit into a life of holy obedience to God’s will. They are doing what the Lord wants them to do in the place God wants them to be. You recall another beloved verse from Psalm 37, “The steps of a good man are ordered by the Lord” (v.23). He went forth ignorant of what lay ahead. He had no plan about meeting Rebekah at a well and asking God to approve of the test he set her. No. He knew none of those things. Would he even find the right girl? Would she be willing to return with him even if he found her? Those were his fundamental questions, and yet one thing he knew was that there is a way through life that is the way, the right and proper way, the way that God blesses. All those on that way are led by the Spirit. God guides them across the wilderness of this world from the City of Destruction all the way to the Celestial City. And I want to insist that this same God has been guiding you so that today you are where God wants you to be, hearing these eternal truths and crying in your hearts, “Continue to lead me Lord. Never stop leading me or my life will end in destruction.”

 

29th November 2009            GEOFF THOMAS